Interview with American Jujitsu Pioneer George Kirby

This is the transcript of an interview with American jujitsu pioneer George Kirby Sensei in the summer of 2017 for the research of my upcoming American aikido history book. In it, we discussed the American public view of the martial arts during the 1960s and 70s, his personal journey through jujitsu, and his organizational endeavors.

 

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Sensei, I want to first thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview!

George Kirby: Thank you for having me! It’s always a pleasure to do interviews with those who are enthusiastic about martial arts.

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MAYTT: The martial arts have come a long way over the years, especially in the United States. Like with anything, various styles, methods and forms have been created and expanded upon in recent times. Tell me, Sensei, how were martial arts viewed in America when you first started training?

GK: I think that martial arts were viewed in a more mystical manner as there were so few schools. You were basically limited to simply “judo” or “karate” – no specific ryu – and there were a lot of misconceptions about what a martial artist could do, mostly out of ignorance. Aikido & Jujitsu were even less known because they weren’t as evident in the public “eye” with movies & TV shows, and the media reduced everything down to either judo or karate – often intermixed with a “karate throw” or “judo strike” – to an ignorant public. The public is somewhat more educated today. With the proliferation of martial arts and martial arts schools, really starting in the 70s, you almost have a martial arts dojo on every street corner and definitely in many strip malls.

However, due to the multiple opportunities, “students” are more selective. Or, as some people say, many expect immediate gratification from what they’re learning, or they switch to another art or dojo. Successful commercial instructors have had to “bow” – bad pun [Laughs] – to this reality to stay in business, whereas many instructors of traditional martial arts operate out of community agencies, often at low or no charge to their students as compared to commercial ventures. Most instructors teaching through community agencies are not dependent on the income for survival & thus teach for the sake of expanding the art.

MAYTT: I see. Why do you think the American public viewed martial arts that way? Was there some amount of fantasy attached to their view or beliefs as to what martial arts really were?

GK: I think ignorance, limited choices, the lack of competition, and general misinformation or lack of information allowed the “martial arts” or anything “Asian” or “Oriental” to be seen in a more mystical manner. This may seem like cultural stereotyping, but that’s what ignorance breeds. The fact that most dojo were taught by sensei of Asian background or sensei taught by Asians while they were in the Orient, added to the mysticism. Students who chose to study a martial art also had to accept the “oriental” standards set forth by their sensei. Some sensei today still perpetuate the mysticism for a variety of reasons.

MAYTT: How and when did you begin your jujitsu journey, Sensei?

GK: I was studying for my Master of Arts degree comprehensive exams at California State Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. MA candidates in the Social Science Department were not allowed to write a master’s thesis as it was felt doing so was a no-brainer. I know that at least one or two lengthy papers I wrote in the master’s program ended up as part of someone’s doctoral thesis, but I digress…[Laughs].

I needed something to take the stress off my studying. My next-door neighbor had just started taking jujitsu classes at the Burbank YMCA (free with YMCA membership). It sounded like a good deal for me, so I joined the class. The class was taught by one of Sensei Seki’s black belts. Seki had taught there prior to teaching at Los Angeles Valley College, Van Nuys, California four nights a week. The frequent classes but also the ample workout time with my neighbor did take my mind off my studies.

MAYTT: In what ways did the workout and training take your mind off of your studies? Was it a positive distraction?

GK: How? Because if I didn’t focus completely on “defending” myself from simulated continuous street attacks I’d get hurt. This is how Seki wanted his students trained; not just to learn techniques and thwart a single attack, but to be able to deal with continuous assaults by one or two attackers. One or two minutes of this was physically exhausting, but it sure took your mind off the “other problems in life.”

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MAYTT: You found Seki Sensei at the Burbank YMCA, what was he like? It sounds like you stayed with him for a good number of years. Are there any particular things that stand out in your memory of that time with Seki Sensei?

GK: My first instructor was, surprisingly, one of Seki’s black belt students who taught at the Burbank YMCA. Sanzo Jack M. Seki was my original jujitsu instructor’s instructor. I went and watched his class a couple of times before I was allowed to sign up & be on the mat. His classes were large, thirty to forty students per two hour class.

Seki was very strict on the mat. He worked us hard but was never physically abusive. He was intolerant of those who didn’t take his class seriously because the material he taught was designed to ultimately injure an attacker, if necessary. He expected us to behave & act accordingly. His attitude was that people who attacked you were “sick” and needed help. With jujitsu, you could “help” your attacker go where he wanted to go. In all fairness to Seki though, he also stressed the necessity of control above all else; self-control as well as matching your response to the attack and the situation. He taught a variety of jujitsu responses that allowed your response to range from simply thwarting the attack, to placing the attacker into a control hold, or culminating in a throw or takedown that could cause serious/incapacitating injury, to the use of nerve and pressure points to cause/control pain or cause unconsciousness. His basic rule for the street was that there were no rules, just success – even if you could just talk your way out of a situation – or failure.

Seki was, however, psychologically abusive on the mat, and lost many students because of this. The higher in rank you were, the more he verbally harassed you. His rationale, which he mentioned to the class on a regular basis, was that since you had the skill to potentially seriously injure another person you also had the responsibility to not get upset with what people said to you. In Seki’s words, “If your ticky-ticky gets hurt you have no business learning jujitsu/a martial art.” He made it a regular practice to try to hurt the “ticky-ticky” of his higher ranked students.

It was hard to let his harassment “go in one ear & out the other” as he sought to have you do. I remember one night when I was a shodan, Seki had me teach his class in his absence for the first time. I was teaching a standing armbar submission to the class. As the students were practicing, I decided to see how a ten-year-old was doing. He set the armbar perfectly. Being “young & dumb,” I decided to resist the hold just to see what he would do. He maintained the hold and “I” dislocated my elbow. For the next several weeks, every time I showed up in class, Seki spent two or three minutes chewing me out for my “stupidity.” In further hindsight, “In one ear & out the other” seems to have paid off in the long run. [Laughs].

As I got to know Seki, I also started to learn that he had a heart of gold off the mat. This more than balanced out his on-mat harassments which I understood were part of his process to weed out students who couldn’t manage their tempers. He almost became like a second father to me. He’d ask for my thoughts on a variety of issues & also give me food for thought if we had differences. In hindsight, maybe he respected me because I had become a public-school teacher.

MAYT: It sounds like Seki Sensei knew what he wanted to achieve with his classes. It also seems like you learned a lot from him. What do you feel was one of the most valuable lessons he taught you?

GK: That’s a good question… Probably not to let my “ticky-ticky” get hurt. On the positive side this has helped me numerous times professionally as a teacher in various interactions with students, parents, administrators, as well as in street situations regular interactions with people and with many interpersonal relations. Some people have gotten upset with me because it is hard to get me upset. On the other hand, as Seki also said, you have to calm yourself down as well after the fact. This same concept applied to when we would use nerve/pressure points in practice. Upper belts learned how to block or reduce the pain to an extent. However, after a workout, our bodies would let us know where the pain was. So even here there was a lesson. You can’t simply repress your feelings. You do have to find a rational way of getting rid of the “negative energy” from your system.

MAYTT: It is interesting that what is taught and learned in the martial arts reflects what one experiences in life. In 1967, you opened your first dojo, Budoshin JuJitsu in Burbank, California. What was that like for you, Sensei?

GK: Actually, Seki called Bill Fromm and I, both brown belts at the time, aside in class one night and told us we were taking over the Burbank YMCA program as the current instructor had to leave. When I said that both of us were only brown belts, he said “Bill knows more techniques and you’re a teacher. You’ll work it out. Now you’re black belts. Act like you’re black belts.” That was the whole discussion. Short and to the point! So, we became the jujitsu instructors at the Burbank YMCA. Done!

MAYTT: It also sounds like you two didn’t have much of a say either way! [Laughs]. Once you and Fromm took over the program, was it difficult to enroll and maintain students?

GK: In the 1960s and 70s, if you offered a martial arts class it was like drawing ants to sugar. And our classes were free to YMCA members; we also taught for free. Our YMCA program grew so large that classes were held in a nearby school gym. Normal enrollment was more than forty students and we usually had two different mats in operation. There was also a six to twelve month waiting list for new students. When we moved the program to the city of Burbank Parks and Recreation Dept in the early 1970s the city required us to charge for the class. So we charged a minimal fee that we felt would cover our operating expenses. That philosophy continued when I started a Budoshin Jujitsu program up in Santa Clarita, California in 1996.

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George Kirby (right) with William Fromm (left) and sensei Sanzo “Jack” M. Seki (center) in 1970. Courtesy of the George Kirby Collection.

In terms of students, they stuck around. Most students remained in our classes for two or three years. Part of it may have been that there were so few other martial arts options, which was a similar situation when I first taught jujitsu as an after-school club at the junior high and when it was added into the regular school curriculum as a physical education and/or elective class. Ultimately, I was able to maintain my class numbers and kept one or two other teachers employed during the summer.

MAYTT: Speaking of Bill Fromm, you two also co-founded the American Jujitsu Association (AJA) in 1972. Can you tell me about William Fromm and your relationship with him? What was he like and how did he impact your journey?

GK: We were both students of Seki at Valley College and had only a passing acquaintance prior to taking over the Burbank YMCA program. Bill was a very straight up & honest person and I appreciated his directness. Although we had a lot of differences politically, we worked very well together as business partners and eventually good friends. He was like a rock to me, even when he moved to Maryland for a better job opportunity. He started a jujitsu program at the Towson, Maryland YMCA and that program has produced a number of top jujitsu instructors. His passing in the early 2000s was a real loss to me and his friendship hasn’t been replaced. Everyone needs a good friend they can bounce personal thoughts off of.

MAYTT: There are some friendships that can never truly be replaced. Surely, the organization’s business kept you both in regular contact with each other?

GK: The AJA was formed at the suggestion of Sensei Seki when Bill moved back east. Seki felt it was a way for us to “stay together.” Bill and I came up with the name on our own. When we applied to the IRS for a non-profit amateur athletic association, open to different ryu of the art, the best status we could get was that of a social club. However, in 1978, we secured a 501c3 status – a non-profit, tax-deductible charitable foundation status – as an amateur athletic association. To my knowledge, the AJA is still the only jujitsu organization in the United States with an amateur athletic association status officially recognized by the United States government.

MAYTT: Do you feel you and the AJA have reached those goals?

GK: Yes and no. There are currently more than thirty dojo in the AJA, compiled of several different ryu of traditional Japanese jujitsu. Since the 1970s, we have gained and lost schools but there has been a consistent and steady growth in the organization.

On the downside, running freestyle kata competitions has become a challenge. The main problem seems to be that the number of students in each dojo is smaller than in the 1970s and 80s and there are greater distances between dojo. Nevertheless, the AJA continues to have a leadership role in the martial arts community.

MAYTT: Since we are discussing organizations, Sensei, what prompted the establishment of your Budoshin Jujitsu Yudanshakai? Did you find this to be a necessary extension to what you were already doing?

GK: With the number of books I had on store bookshelves and in the hands of martial artists, plus the Budoshin Jujitsu Black Belt Home Study Course video series by Panther Productions, the number of inquiries regarding the instructional materials, including requests for belt testing, the establishment of the BJJY in 1994 was an inevitable creation. Not only did my existing black belts across the United States need a home, but students learning the art through the video series also needed an effective way to measure their progress. I created the BJJY to meet both of those needs.

MAYTT: Much like the AJA, has the BJJY succeeded in its initial purpose?

GK: Yes, way beyond my original expectations! It has resulted in two monthly newsletters, videos on YouTube, additional video series from seminars and summer camps, and a comprehensive standardization of black belt requirements in the Black Belt Handbook. A number of members have made to shodan and beyond. Just as important, it has led to meeting a lot of top martial artists in jujitsu as well as other martial arts.

MAYTT: To slightly change the subject, I have read that jujitsu, judo, and other grappling martial arts are referred to “a gentleman’s art,” possibly leading potential practitioners to believe that only someone of high social class would be able to take up and excel at those martial arts. Would you say that assumption has prevailed in America?

GK: Frankly, no. The “gentleman’s art” is something that evolved out of some of the early judo & jujitsu books – the terms were often interchangeable – from around the 1900s that inferred that by using judo/jujitsu, you could successfully defend yourself with a minimal use of force and not get dirty or disheveled in the process. “Gentlemen” were considered to be well-dressed, polite, not necessarily physically strong, or a man who would engage in rough or “unseemly” behavior or enter businesses of dubious behavior. The inference was that if you were of high social class you would excel in judo or jujitsu because it required only minimal effort. So, there’s another false stereotype and advertising ploy that was put to good commercial use. It may have worked around the turn of the twentieth century, but once you have World War I and II, those battlefields really equalized the male sex. A bullet doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, not even on the street today. The term is from a long bygone era.

The only vague parallel that may exist is a timeless truism: If you, male or female, have trained and are proficient in a martial art that has provided you with street attack training your chances of avoidance and/or survival in a real street situation may be improved.

MAYTT: Personally speaking Sensei, what do you see has jujitsu done for you? Has it been an asset in all aspects of your life?

GK: It has helped me become more self-confident and humble at the same time. It has also given me opportunities I never expected in life.

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MAYTT: Today it is not so uncommon for practitioners to dabble or cross train in a variety of martial disciplines expecting to broaden the experience. However, you have demonstrated that one art can encompass a multitude of learning. To follow up on the previous questions, what does jujitsu mean to you and why have you stuck with jujitsu for so long?

KG: It has provided me with an opportunity for continuous growth, better health, and the ability to help others – both to study jujitsu and participate in the area of law enforcement – that I have never conceived of when I was in college. It was and still is an “out in left field” experience for me. That, in and of itself, has made me a better person. In addition, learning the art has given me the opportunity to teach others how to successfully defend themselves, help law enforcement personnel secure suspect compliance more efficiently and with a lower risk of injury to themselves and the suspect, and even to using the art myself in a variety of situations.

MAYTT: What are your thoughts on jujitsu being a budo? Can it be viewed or even considered a spiritual endeavor?

GK: Bu translates into “martial.” Do translates into “way.” Literally judo, karate-do, and aikido are all “ways.” Jujitsu (ju, meaning “gentle,” and jitsu meaing “art)] is an “art,” which indicates a higher skill level, especially since it is the foundation of judo, aikido, and some ryu of karate-do. However, if we’re speaking about the spirit of budo, conducting oneself in an honorable and respectable manner, I would accept that practitioners of jujitsu do study in the spirit of budo.

MAYTT: How do you feel you have impacted the American martial arts community, Sensei? What do you see has your greatest contribution to date?

GK: I’ve been lucky enough to teach the art for more than fifty-two years now. Some of my students have become noteworthy instructors. The few students who’ve had to use Budoshin Jujitsu on the street have been universally successful. I’ve had ten books on jujitsu published, in addition to numerous articles in Black Belt Magazine and the Budoshin Jujitsu: Densho. I also filmed a video series published by Panther Productions and numerous other Budoshin Jujitsu videos that have been published since. Like I mentioned before, I’ve also had the honor of working with several law enforcement agencies to improve their arrest and control training programs using Budoshin Jujitsu techniques. The AJA and my involvement in other organizations has hopefully engendered a positive image of Budoshin Jujitsu. I’m also hopeful that the books, videos, and other Budoshin Jujitsu instructors will continue to spread the art after I am no longer able to do so.

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George Kirby’s first book in 1983.

MAYTT: Speaking of spreading jujitsu, who do you feel has raised the awareness of jujitsu and/or martial arts in America, Sensei? Is there someone that stands out and has set an example for others to follow?

GK: The late Professor Wally Jay would be number one in my opinion. His small-circle theory and dedication to making a number of traditional jujitsu techniques more efficient demonstrates a willingness to improve the art. Even though I learned a different ryu of the art, his attitude served as an inspiration for me to do all the writing and videos I have produced. Although Seki never secured the “publicity” that Wally Jay did, if it wasn’t for Seki’s faith in me, I would have all the successes I’ve had in the martial arts community. So, Seki would be right up there with Jay, but from a different perspective.

MAYTT: The martial arts are constantly evolving. Many have expanded upon original teachings to include scientific study and explanation which includes physics, human anatomy and even mathematics. In your opinion, has the prevailing jujitsu style changed in America since you started jujitsu?

GK: As far as traditional Japanese jujitsu goes, regardless of style, the answer is no. Teaching methods and approaches may have changed in certain cases, but the art remains unchanged. That goes along with any of the traditional martial arts.

I also go along with Seki’s belief that there really aren’t different “styles” of jujitsu; that there is only jujitsu. From my experience in the AJA, which has different ryu in it that can work together, to my own experiences in working with different ryu, once you get past different terminology names (in English and Japanese) and variations in execution, it’s amazing how similar all the jujitsu ryu are. In case you’re asking why Seki would allow me to call what I teach Budoshin Jujitsu, it’s because Budoshin refers to a code of conduct (to conduct oneself in a respectable manner) rather than a style name for a type of jujitsu. He would not have allowed Budoshin Ryu Jujitsu.

Additionally, traditional Japanese Jujitsu hasn’t really changed, and it has faced a “challenge” from Brazilian Jujitsu and more recently from Mixed Martial Arts. Only time will tell if BJJ and MMA will retain their popularity, especially if the entertainment industry gets bored with MMA.

MAYTT: Concerning such “challenges,” would you say that there is an increase or decrease of jujitsuka in America since you started training?

GK: That’s a hard question, since I don’t know how other jujitsu organizations or dojo are doing currently. I do know, however, that my average class sizes have decreased in the past 10 years. However, class size does vary and on occasion the city closes registration because the class is full. I’d like to say the number has increased but I don’t know how accurate of an assessment that it.

MAYTT: Final question, Sensei. What are your thoughts on why Americans continue to train in Japanese martial arts? Is there still a fantasy aspect to their fascination even in modern times?

GK: At one level, the physical level, it can help maintain better body health and conditioning and/or provide an effective means of self-defense. Some people are happy with just securing a shodan. They then drop out and go on to the next item on their bucket list. For those who continue into the brown and black belt levels, there is the additional intrinsic reward of learning advanced concepts and techniques, combining basic moves, and analyzing the art. Additionally there are the responsibilities and rewards of teaching your martial art to others. I do think, with the multiplicity of different martial arts in the United States today, that some of the “uniqueness” of studying a martial art has been reduced to the same level as playing soccer, football, baseball, tennis, swimming, weightlifting, etc.

I think the real challenge is to keep students interested in continued growth and involvement in the martial arts program. However, I think this challenge applies to any activity one is involved in. For students who remain in a martial arts program, or any activity for that matter, it’s because they’re getting something out of it. There’s nothing that is intrinsically wrong with this and this realization has always been around. Some people are attracted to the martial arts because the art itself, the fact that it originated in the orient and thus may present a different philosophy or goals from other physical activities in the United States, or the background of the instructor helps provide them with a different perspective on life.

MAYTT: Thank you again, Kirby Sensei, for exploring jujitsu’s past in the United States with us! Truly fascinating!

GK: Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to do so! I hope you readers will enjoy the journey.

You can find George Kirby at Budoshin Jujitsu. This interview was referenced in the book Aikido Comes to America.

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